by Tony Dayoub
It's been over a week since I saw Pain & Gain. I'm only now getting around to writing about it because it has taken me this long to sort out my feelings about it. I say this like if it's some sort of deep, philosophical exegesis on the commodification of the human body by the exercise industry when it's really just a fluffy Michael Bay crime flick. Perhaps that is what has made it more difficult to read this film.
I'm a Miami native who followed (in real time) the 1999 New Times story on which the movie is based and, believe me, the slapstick criminal blunders of the bodybuilding hoods in Pain & Gain are nothing compared to the real deal. Just before the movie winds down, at about the time Paul Doyle (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is barbecuing the dismembered hands belonging to his gang's victims in order to burn away their fingerprints, a graphic flashes onscreen reminding viewers, "This is still a true story." Well, not exactly. Some parts were removed, some persons merged into one composite character, etc. But who can blame Bay for doing so?
Read the story I linked to after you see the far-fetched film, and you'll realize that, in this case, the cliché holds true... truth IS stranger than fiction. Which is to say that growing up in Miami afforded me the singular perspective of not being even remotely surprised at the wacky characters and events depicted in Pain & Gain. Long before the bath salts zombie made headlines for chewing a man's face off near the old Miami Herald building, there was the guy who decapitated his girlfriend one morning and walked up and down the next street over from where I lived, swinging the head in one hand and a machete in another as he yelled, "I've killed Satan." Or words to that effect. It's no exaggeration to aver that Miami is a hotbed for crazy crime.
Mark Wahlberg—who is often at his best when he plays the smartest guy in the room or, as in Boogie Nights and here, a man who thinks he is the smartest guy in the room—plays the Pain & Gain gang's ringleader, Daniel Lugo. I went to school with people like Lugo, and I met personal trainers like Lugo at the Bally's Health Club on Coral Way, where I worked out. These were men who were always concerned with the image they projected: all slicked-back hair, puffy roid-filled muscles, and leather briefcases containing... what, gym applications? But they believed the first step to quick success was pretending that they had already gotten there, driving around in their Mercedes, modeling themselves on kingpins like Tony Montana (or as Lugo does in Pain & Gain, Michael Corleone), while their penises shrunk, and they were stuck living in Mom's efficiency.
There is a quirky verisimilitude to the weird plot points and characters that make up Pain & Gain that I strangely identified with... no, felt a perverse form of nostalgia for. This is what makes the camp, operatic Pain & Gain the perfect marriage between subject matter and filmmaker. Like most people who ingest cinema for daily sustenance, I hold a unique antipathy for Michael Bay's movies, not least because the man is obviously not untalented. But he squanders his talent shooting the shit out of his film. A simple pan or dolly isn't enough without making sure his camera doesn't whirl around his actors at least 2 or 3 times. Explosions are louder, longer, and brighter in his films. And while that may work for blockbusters like his Transformers series, they diminish his stabs at respectable movies like Pearl Harbor. No matter; with Pain & Gain he doesn't need to curb his distracting, showboating tendencies. Here the method is the madness—vein-popping, muscular camera work not only informs but mirrors the air-headed machinations of Pain & Gain's dunderhead gym-rats.
My only critical dilemma has been this. Is Bay self-aware enough to have allowed his style to play into Pain & Gain's uniquely grotesque elements? (In Pain & Gain, Bay quotes venerated film classics like Yojimbo and Badlands with amazing subtlety for the kind of director that I characterize here.) Or did Bay just luck into the perfect vehicle for his sensibility by default? Pain & Gain never firmly reveals the kind of self-consciousness I'm arguing about, and I'm not sure if that's good or bad.